HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. Army is developing an extended-range cannon artillery system and will start building prototypes by the end of the year, according to the head of the services Long-Range Precision Fires modernization program. But beyond the first iteration, the service plans to add an autoloader starting in 2024, Col. John Rafferty explained.

The Army plans to build 8 prototypes of the ERCA artillery system by 2023 with a culminating technology demonstration, Rafferty said. The service is focused on improvements to the platform, the projectile, the ammunition and propellant.

After years of planning, the Paladin Integrated Management program aims to upgrade the Paladin howitzer with an M109A7 chassis. From there, the ERCA program will upgrade PIM’s turret with a 58-caliber, 30-foot long gun tube capable of shooting farther than 70 kilometers.

“That is a major improvement,” Rafferty said, but “we still have a ways to go with integrating the precision guidance kit with a GPS fuze for that.”

The challenge is the muzzle blasts are so much higher, he said, so it changes the way the fuze operates.

Rafferty said the Army has shot an Excalibur round from the gun tube and hit a target at 62 kilometers.

The first battalion will be fielded in fiscal 2023. The next increment beginning in 2024 will involve equipping the cannon with the autoloader.

“The autoloader is key to generating the volume of fire that really gives us that lethality at range,” Rafferty said, but it’s “a pretty complicated technology to develop.”

Currently, the Army relies on two cannoneers to equip a dumb projectile with smart fuzes. This is being done in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Rafferty noted.

And “there is a complex fuze-setting process and battery life on the fuzes, which means you can’t fuze them hours beforehand,” he explained. “You need to screw the fuzes on, then set them, and the charge lasts for a certain length of time.”

But this process is challenging for autoloaders, he noted, which means the Army will have to take a unique approach.

While there is an internal effort to build an autoloader prototype, the service is also looking to the Army Applications Lab at Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, for ideas that might approach the challenge differently, Rafferty said.

The lab is located in an innovator’s hub called the Capital Factory and is geared toward uniting Army requirements writers and developers with individuals and companies with nontraditional technology that could be applied to efforts underway within the service.